Book Review: Weeds

Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants: A Cultural History

Richard Mabey

Weeds

I should love to go on a walk in the countryside, or indeed anywhere with a hint of greenery, with the author of this book, Richard Mabey. He explains so well – and with such knowledge, humour and charm – where each weed we may come across has originated and how weeds have been the bane of humanity for hundreds of years. Our comprehension of their uses, purpose, growth habits and so on is so limited, yet Mr Mabey seems to know it all! This book is so fascinating I found myself taking notes!

First of all, he looks at how to define weeds, which only exist where humans are. Ploughing, for example, provides the optimal conditions for plants which sow themselves out regularly and grow rapidly.

He also examines the history of weeds; as medicine or food, in literature and common folklore, in superstition and religion. The allocation of characters and meanings to certain plants are discussed, as well as the weeding process in past ages. Poets and writers have referred to weeds and wild flowers since time began with nostalgia and familiarity, and Mabey frequently quotes one of my favourite poets – John Clare – whose pet subject was country life; our alienation from nature’s ways, and the changes in agriculture and horticulture are very clear when looking at old poetry. Mabey quotes from Clare’s The Shepherd’s Calendar:

“… Each morning, now, the weeders meet

To cut the thistle from the wheat,

And ruin, in the sunny hours,

Full many a wild weed with its flowers;—

Corn-poppies, that in crimson dwell,

Call’d “Head-achs,” from their sickly smell;

And charlocks, yellow as the sun,

That o’er the May-fields quickly run…”

The origins of many weeds found in the UK – some of which are extremely invasive – are explained too; how they were transported on ship hulls, in bales of cloth, in wood exported as building material, and nowadays in pot plants and birdseed, and even in coffins!

But my favourite part of the book was Mr Mabey’s reference to my most hated weed – Ground-elder. He says  “ there is one weed species that is beyond the pale even under our laissez-faire regime … in the herbaceous borders it permeates every inch of soil….. insinuating their white subterranean tendrils, as supple as earthworms, around and through any root system in their way.” His wife has contracted the name into Grelda, describing its witch-like qualities at the same time!

“Weeds” is very readable and entertaining, and yet at the same time extremely informative.

I highly recommend it!